Kundiman for a Ghost


Overlooking San Diego, my back is pressed against the top of Mount Soledad looking at the stars. Many of them are dead. Supernovas, split open—a vibrant flash of gone. Nobody heard them dying—a silent moan in the language of gas and dust. Rivers of atoms kicked from their bellies, spilling out, swallowed by the greatest of empties—these grand bangs into blankness. The cosmos stand in solitude as another burning body sails past. The dead and all their ancestors burn into my retina. But I can only see the aftermath—the ghosts. The universe is in constant mourning. I am deep in eulogy.

I wonder if Grandpa found direction in this graveyard when crossing the Pacific—if he looked up and asked these ghosts for their ancient blessing of compass rose. Did he bow his head and pray to Saint Anthony, the Patron Saint of the Lost and Found, asking him to guide his way?


On Tuesdays, Grandma and Grandpa went to the casino. Him: navy baseball cap covering the last wisps of gray hair, one hand on her shoulder; the other, swinging in counter. Her: one arm around his hip; the other, clutching a bag full of his butterscotch and a carton of orange juice, just in case. Mom would get pissed at him for doing that. When you fall, she’ll fall, too. You want that? He never did.

He was so mad when Mom and Uncle took away the keys to his car. They drove him everywhere, even to the places he was tired of going. It was around the same time the phlebotomist started calling him “Mr. Castro.” Funny how people remember names when they quicken to stone.

Soon, his legs ballooned with water. He was unable to piss. The water was rising. The doctors drained his legs and wrapped them in gauze, but they still filled like the sky. He: lost in the thunder. When his legs continued to flood, the old Filipino nurses boiled guava leaves and let the oils seep into the bandages. After the medicine set, his old legs, bruised and battered, but skinny as his old fishing net, carried him from his chair to his bed.

His nights became longer, spilling into the day. Mom took away the wooden stool he used to sit on, fearing that he would fall over when he got too tired. Doctors became more frequent. Then, not at all. And all at once, the world became ambulance—became highway and asphalt and feet that couldn’t fly fast enough. Nothing could fly fast enough. Became fistfuls of air, gasping between knuckles. Became white as salt and sterile, clean. The sea of his body filling the room. Call all the uncles and aunties. Send in the prayers and saints. His eyes closed—wisps of hair brushed from his sweaty forehead. Blue lights flashed against silicon tubes, these pillars of life tunneled from his throat, from his veins. The whole world jumped to palpitation and machine, rocking a boat to the other side. Curtains ripped open: Nurse, Fix him. Do your goddamn job. Fix him. Everything and all at the foot of his bed.

And just like that, birds flocked from his veins—


Years ago in the house on Picard, he would yank on my toes between bites of waffles and spam. He would laugh and smile as he cracked my bones. They grew long and skinny. He told me that someday I would grow into them, but I never did. His ghost touch constantly pulling my feet.

Today, I found myself at the casino. I bit a paycheck to let my dreams feast. Cash and luck rush out, emptying my pockets. In the mist of secondhand smoke and secondhand fortune, I swore every old Filipino man with a baseball cap looked just like him. One arm on her shoulder—the other swinging in counter. The lights blind me through the tobacco haze. The air so thick—sunglassed black, Half-Windsor tight, and the Frankincense filling the great hall of God. The priest, the pallbearers, and the mourning congregation sway behind his body. I am so sorry lines his memoir. The solemn moan of Taps. Three empty bullet casings. A flag creased under white gloves. Body upon body folded over his casket. The nine day novena. A plate of uneaten babinka offered to his frame. And the flowers. All the flowers.

Do not sweep the floors. Let the crumbs fall. Let. Them. Fall. Do not send him away. Grandma grabs the broom from me as I clean up after my uncles and aunties during one of the novenas. He lingers in the home, in the ceiling, in the spoons and chairs. In the attic and blankets, the corners of his closet, the pots and pans, and all the dust floating in his absence. His fingerprints sear into everything he ever touched. There is enough food—let us eat to his long life of luck. Let. Him. Eat.

But I thought I saw him today, among the blur, among the pull of jade and Buddha, in the thick of cigarette smoke and prayers. This holy space swallows the days of the week. But it wasn’t Tuesday today. It was any other day. And to be honest, it hasn’t been Tuesday in a while. So I open the sky and cast his fishing net of rosary beads and water his plot of earth with the catch.


I find myself lost in San Francisco under the fluorescence of slanted halos. Looking above the orange glow of streetlights, I wonder how to ask this graveyard for its blessing of direction. Do I bow my head and pray to Saint Anthony? The compass limbs rattle at the hinges, spinning wild with wishes, to the magnetic pull of home. It is strange how science can never prove life in the heavens, but the dead have always guided our way.

I’ve learned this ancient act of seeking help from Grandma. When I was little, she and Grandpa would take care of me during the day. Her old hands clutched her green rosary beads, lips quietly motioning Hail Marys between the white noise of The Price Is Right. Her prayers danced delicate in the airwaves of fortunes, boats, and new cars.

In the mornings she holds Saint Anthony’s prayer card fixed in concentration—three children, seven grandchildren—a half century deep. Shut closed, burdens were carved into the corners of her eyes. She was only whispers away from the beaches of Pangasinan, where Grandpa ran away from Japanese soldiers. Her lips kiss the ship where she wrapped Mom in a blanket. Her bony fingers trace the creases of the Pacific. The frail edges. Paper foxing. The letters fading—washing away.

How many tongues call my belly home? Their silent psalms lick the air I breathe, tasting the ocean’s salt. I am their urn. I am a wind chime swinging—first cast by the moon and sea. My echo settles on driftwood and droplets. I am waist deep in the Pacific. The water is rising:



In Greek, the etymology of “photograph” is “to write in light.” The neon glare of the liquor store at the corner of Arch and Orizaba in San Francisco and the twenty-four hour donut shop in San Diego sear into my memory. Red and blue neon tubes haunt the demarcations of belongingI am almost home. The fluorescence is pulling me forward—writing, to reveal. Open. Come inside.

I can’t unlock the unlockable. I can’t understand the whispers of the dead no matter how loud they scream in the scatter. This is the language of my grandparents. The one they muttered in passing or when they were alone. Mahal Kita. I could only listen in silence as our culture washes over me—drowning between generations, after so many years, miles and miles ago. This is my quiet ritual of acknowledging the familiar and the distant. I love you, too.

But I am just another open wound of light—a passing body bound by bliss and carbon. I am the latest iteration of the untouchable. Blood funnels from these veins into infinities and ghosts lost in questions. I am a kundiman for memories I can’t call my own. My tongue folds into wings between this song. I can’t speak to the dearly departed when I have departed. I can only watch the goodbyes grow ever greater. Miss Kita.

I find these ghosts over tables and steam. They are dug up from the bottom of pots and pans, in hands and vinegar and rice. Eat. With every bite, they are at my teeth, haunting my throat. I am filled with the dead. They are of me, but not of me. I am of them, but not of them. I am a eulogy for everything I have never known.


Sometimes, Grandma forgets the days of the week and which grandson I am. She doesn’t remember where she placed her keys or her jacket. Uncle stays with her during the day and Mom goes over in the night. She doesn’t cook anymore. She doesn’t carry butterscotch in her pursue. Like her, I witness the realignment of the invisible.

But she still sits next to Grandpa’s picture in the living room—he, constantly pulling. Say goodbye to him. Don’t forget. Eyes closed, her thin hands of blue rivers run along her old rosary beads. I stop as I unlock the front door. I’ve written this song so many times that it became I miss you. It is stuck in my throat like the unlucky fish caught in Grandpa’s old fishing net—the one he traded for cooking oil and the American Dream. The sister song. The whispered one—the one underneath all the trumpets. This is the kundiman for a ghost. It is traced into the spirals of my fingertips, at the intersection of skin and surface, here and there, me and other. But everything is just out of reach.

This is lifeboat. Everything rocking. Even tomorrow. Even this goodbye. We are water of the same ocean—filling the same spine, the same shell. This home: this love. Pressed into earth, I witness all the blood light unspooling across the universe. This is to say, we are still living.


Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.

Tomas Nieto is a Filipino/Mexican-American writer from San Diego. He holds degrees from San Diego State University and San Francisco State University and is alumni of Las Dos Brujas and VONA/Voices. His work has appeared in Solstice Literary Magazine. More from this author →